The Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces of India - Volume IV of IV - Kumhar-Yemkala
by R.V. Russell
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5. Occupation

In the rural area of the Province the Lohar is still a village menial, making and mending the iron implements of agriculture, such as the ploughshare, axe, sickle, goad and other articles. For doing this he is paid in Saugor a yearly contribution of twenty pounds of grain per plough of land [105] held by each cultivator, together with a handful of grain at sowing-time and a sheaf at harvest from both the autumn and spring crops. In Wardha he gets fifty pounds of grain per plough of four bullocks or forty acres. For making new implements the Lohar is sometimes paid separately and is always supplied with the iron and charcoal. The hand-smelting iron industry has practically died out in the Province and the imported metal is used for nearly all purposes. The village Lohars are usually very poor, their income seldom exceeding that of an unskilled labourer. In the towns, owing to the rapid extension of milling and factory industries, blacksmiths readily find employment and some of them earn very high wages. In the manufacture of cutlery, nails and other articles the capital is often found by a Bhatia or Bohra merchant, who acts as the capitalist and employs the Lohars as his workmen. The women help their husbands by blowing the bellows and dragging the hot iron from the furnace, while the men wield the hammer. The Panchals of Berar are described as a wandering caste of smiths, living in grass mat-huts and using as fuel the roots of thorn bushes, which they batter out of the ground with the back of a short-handled axe peculiar to themselves. They move from place to place with buffaloes, donkeys and ponies to carry their kit. [106] Another class of wandering smiths, the Ghisaris, are described by Mr. Crooke as follows: "Occasional camps of these most interesting people are to be met with in the Districts of the Meerut Division. They wander about with small carts and pack-animals, and, being more expert than the ordinary village Lohar, their services are in demand for the making of tools for carpenters, weavers and other craftsmen. They are known in the Punjab as Gadiya or those who have carts (gadi, gari). Sir D. Ibbetson [107] says that they come up from Rajputana and the North-Western Provinces, but their real country is the Deccan. In the Punjab they travel about with their families and implements in carts from village to village, doing the finer kinds of iron-work, which are beyond the capacity of the village artisan. In the Deccan [108] this class of wandering blacksmiths are called Saiqalgar, or knife-grinders, or Ghisara, or grinders (Hindi, ghisana 'to rub'). They wander about grinding knives and tools."


Lorha. [109]—A small caste of cultivators in the Hoshangabad and Nimar Districts, whose distinctive occupation is to grow san-hemp (Crotalaria juncea) and to make sacking and gunny-bags from the fibre. A very strong prejudice against this crop exists among the Hindus, and those who grow it are usually cut off from their parent caste and become a separate community. Thus we have the castes known as Kumrawat, Patbina and Dangur in different parts of the Province, who are probably offshoots from the Kurmis and Kunbis, but now rank below them because they grow this crop; and in the Kurmi caste itself a subcaste of Santora (hemp-picking) Kurmis has grown up. In Bilaspur the Patharia Kurmis will grow san-hemp and ret it, but will not spin or weave the fibre; while the Atharia Kurmis will not grow the crop, but will spin the fibre and make sacking. The Saugor Kewats grow this fibre, and here Brahmans and other high castes will not take water from Kewats, though in the eastern Districts they will do so. The Narsinghpur Mallahs, a branch of the Kewats, have also adopted the cultivation of san-hemp as a regular profession. The basis of the prejudice against the san-hemp plant is not altogether clear. The Lorhas themselves say that they are looked down upon because they use wheat-starch (lapsi) for smoothing the fibre, and that their name is somehow derived from this fact. But the explanation does not seem satisfactory. Many of the country people appear to think that there is something uncanny about the plant because it grows so quickly, and they say that on one occasion a cultivator went out to sow hemp in the morning, and his wife was very late in bringing his dinner to the field. He grew hungry and angry, and at last the shoots of the hemp-seeds which he had sown in the morning began to appear above the ground. At this he was so enraged that when his wife finally came he said she had kept him waiting so long that the crop had come up in the meantime, and murdered her. Since then the Hindus have been forbidden to grow san-hemp lest they should lose their tempers in the same manner. This story makes a somewhat excessive demand on the hearer's credulity. One probable cause of the taboo seems to be that the process of soaking and retting the stalks of the plant pollutes the water, and if carried on in a tank or in the pools of a stream might destroy the village supply of drinking-water. In former times it may have been thought that the desecration of their sacred element was an insult to the deities of rivers and streams, which would bring down retribution on the offender. It is also the case that the proper separation of the fibres requires a considerable degree of dexterity which can only be acquired by practice. Owing to the recent increase in the price of the fibre and the large profits which can now be obtained from hemp cultivation, the prejudice against it is gradually breaking down, and the Gonds, Korkus and lower Hindu castes have waived their religious scruples and are glad to turn an honest penny by sowing hemp either on their own account or for hire. Other partially tabooed crops are turmeric and al or Indian madder (Morinda citrifolia), while onions and garlic are generally eschewed by Hindu cultivators. For growing turmeric and al special subcastes have been formed, as the Alia Kunbis and the Hardia Malis and Kachhis (from haldi, turmeric), just as in the case of san-hemp. The objection to these two crops is believed to lie in the fact that the roots which yield the commercial product have to be boiled, and by this process a number of insects contained in them are destroyed. But the preparation of the hemp-fibre does not seem to involve any such sacrifice of insect life. The Lorhas appear to be a mixed group, with a certain amount of Rajput blood in them, perhaps an offshoot of the Kirars, with whose social customs their own are said to be identical. According to another account, they are a lower or illegitimate branch of the Lodha caste of cultivators, of whose name their own is said to be a corruption. The Nimar Gujars have a subcaste named Lorha, and the Lorhas of Hoshangabad may be connected with these. They live in the Seoni and Harda tahsils of Hoshangabad, the san-hemp crop being a favourite one in villages adjoining the forests, because it is not subject to the depredations of wild animals. Cultivators are often glad to sublet their fields for the purpose of having a crop of hemp grown upon them, because the stalks are left for manure and fertilise the ground. String and sacking are also made from the hemp-fibre by vagrant and criminal castes like the Banjaras and Bhamtas, who formerly required the bags for carrying their goods and possessions about with them.


List of Paragraphs

1. General Notice. 2. Length of residence in the Central Provinces. 3. Legend of origin. 4. Sub castes. 5. Exogamous groups and marriage customs. 6. Funeral rites. 7. Childbirth. 8. Names. 9. Religion. 10. Adoption of foreign religions. 11. Superstitions. 12. Social rules. 13. Social subjection. 14. Their position improving. 15. Occupation.

1. General Notice.

Mahar, Mehra, Dhed.—The impure caste of menials, labourers and village watchmen of the Maratha country, corresponding to the Chamars and Koris of northern India. They numbered nearly 1,200,000 persons in the combined Province in 1911, and are most numerous in the Nagpur, Bhandara, Chanda and Wardha Districts of the Central Provinces, while considerable colonies are also found in Balaghat, Chhindwara and Betul. Their distribution thus follows largely that of the Marathi language and the castes speaking it. Berar contained 400,000, distributed over the four Districts. In the whole Province this caste is third in point of numerical strength. In India the Mahars number about three million persons, of whom a half belong to Bombay. I am not aware of any accepted derivation for the word Mahar, but the balance of opinion seems to be that the native name of Bombay, Maharashtra, is derived from that of the caste, as suggested by Wilson. Another derivation which holds it to be a corruption of Maha Rastrakuta, and to be so called after the Rashtrakuta Rajput dynasty of the eighth and ninth centuries, seems less probable because countries are very seldom named after ruling dynasties. [110] Whereas in support of Maharashtra as 'The country of the Mahars,' we have Gujarashtra or Gujarat, 'the country of the Gujars,' and Saurashtra or Surat, 'the country of the Sauras.' According to Platts' Dictionary, however, Maharashtra means 'the great country,' and this is what the Maratha Brahmans themselves say. Mehra appears to be a variant of the name current in the Hindustani Districts, while Dheda, or Dhada, is said to be a corruption of Dharadas or billmen. [111] In the Punjab it is said to be a general term of contempt meaning 'Any low fellow.' [112]

Wilson considers the Mahars to be an aboriginal or pre-Aryan tribe, and all that is known of the caste seems to point to the correctness of this hypothesis. In the Bombay Gazetteer the writer of the interesting Gujarat volume suggests that the Mahars are fallen Rajputs; but there seems little to support this opinion except their appearance and countenance, which is of the Hindu rather than the Dravidian type. In Gujarat they have also some Rajput surnames, as Chauhan, Panwar, Rathor, Solanki and so on, but these may have been adopted by imitation or may indicate a mixture of Rajput blood. Again, the Mahars of Gujarat are the farmservants and serfs of the Kunbis. "Each family is closely connected with the house of some landholder or pattidar (sharer). For his master he brings in loads from the fields and cleans out the stable, receiving in return daily allowances of buttermilk and the carcases of any cattle that die. This connection seems to show traces of a form of slavery. Rich pattidars have always a certain number of Dheda families whom they speak of as ours (hamara) and when a man dies he distributes along with his lands a certain number of Dheda families to each of his sons. An old tradition among Dhedas points to some relation between the Kunbis and Dhedas. Two brothers, Leva and Deva, were the ancestors, the former of the Kunbis, the latter of the Dhedas." [113] Such a relation as this in Hindu society would imply that many Mahar women held the position of concubines to their Kunbi masters, and would therefore account for the resemblance of the Mahar to Hindus rather than the forest tribes. But if this is to be regarded as evidence of Rajput descent, a similar claim would have to be allowed to many of the Chamars and sweepers. Others of the lowest castes also have Rajput sept names, as the Pardhis and Bhils; but the fact can at most be taken, I venture to think, to indicate a connection of the 'Droit de Seigneur' type. On the other hand, the Mahars occupy the debased and impure position which was the lot of those non-Aryan tribes who became subject to the Hindus and lived in their villages; they eat the flesh of dead cattle and this and other customs appear to point decisively to a non-Aryan origin.

2. Length of residence in the Central Provinces

Several circumstances indicate that the Mahar is recognised as the oldest resident of the plain country of Berar and Nagpur. In Berar he is a village servant and is the referee on village boundaries and customs, a position implying that his knowledge of them is the most ancient. At the Holi festival the fire of the Mahars is kindled first and that of the Kunbis is set alight from it. The Kamdar Mahar, who acts as village watchman, also has the right of bringing the toran or rope of leaves which is placed on the marriage-shed of the Kunbis; and for this he receives a present of three annas. In Bhandra the Telis, Lohars, Dhimars and several other castes employ a Mahar Mohturia or wise man to fix the date of their weddings. And most curious of all, when the Panwar Rajputs of this tract celebrate the festival of Narayan Deo, they call a Mahar to their house and make him the first partaker of the feast before beginning to eat themselves. Again in Berar [114] the Mahar officiates at the killing of the buffalo on Dasahra. On the day before the festival the chief Mahar of the village and his wife with their garments knotted together bring some earth from the jungle and fashioning two images set one on a clay elephant and the other on a clay bullock. The images are placed on a small platform outside the village site and worshipped; a young he-buffalo is bathed and brought before the images as though for the same object. The Patel wounds the buffalo in the nose with a sword and it is then marched through the village. In the evening it is killed by the head Mahar, buried in the customary spot, and any evil that might happen during the coming year is thus deprecated and, it is hoped, averted. The claim to take the leading part in this ceremony is the occasion of many a quarrel and an occasional affray or riot Such customs tend to show that the Mahars were the earliest immigrants from Bombay into the Berar and Nagpur plain, excluding of course the Gonds and other tribes, who have practically been ousted from this tract. And if it is supposed that the Panwars came here in the tenth century, as seems not improbable, [115] the Mahars, whom the Panwars recognise as older residents than themselves, must have been earlier still, and were probably numbered among the subjects of the old Hindu kingdoms of Bhandak and Nagardhan.

3. Legend of origin

The Mahars say they are descended from Mahamuni, who was a foundling picked up by the goddess Parvati on the banks of the Ganges. At this time beef had not become a forbidden food; and when the divine cow, Tripad Gayatri, died, the gods determined to cook and eat her body and Mahamuni was set to watch the pot boiling. He was as inattentive as King Alfred, and a piece of flesh fell out of the pot. Not wishing to return the dirty piece to the pot Mahamuni ate it; but the gods discovered the delinquency, and doomed him and his descendants to live on the flesh of dead cows. [116]

4. Sub-castes

The caste have a number of subdivisions, generally of a local or territorial type, as Daharia, the residents of Dahar or the Jubbulpore country, Baonia (52) of Berar, Nemadya or from Nimar, Khandeshi from Khandesh, and so on; the Katia group are probably derived from that caste, Katia meaning a spinner; the Barkias are another group whose name is supposed to mean spinners of fine thread; while the Lonarias are salt-makers. The highest division are the Somvansis or children of the moon; these claim to have taken part with the Pandavas against the Kauravas in the war of the Mahabharata, and subsequently to have settled in Maharashtra. [117] But the Somvansi Mahars consent to groom horses, which the Baone and Kosaria subcastes will not do. Baone and Somvansi Mahars will take food together, but will not intermarry. The Ladwan subcaste are supposed to be the offspring of kept women of the Somvansi Mahars; and in Wardha the Dharmik group are also the descendants of illicit unions and their name is satirical, meaning 'virtuous.' As has been seen, the caste have a subdivision named Katia, which is the name of a separate Hindustani caste; and other subcastes have names belonging to northern India, as the Mahobia, from Mahoba in the United Provinces, the Kosaria or those from Chhattisgarh, and the Kanaujia from Kanauj. This may perhaps be taken to indicate that bodies of the Kori and Katia weaving castes of northern India have been amalgamated with the Mahars in Districts where they have come together along the Satpura Hills and Nerbudda Valley.

5. Exogamous groups and marriage customs

The caste have also a large number of exogamous groups, the names of which are usually derived from plants, animals, and natural objects. A few may be given as examples out of fifty-seven recorded in the Central Provinces, though this is far from representing the real total; all the common animals have septs named after them, as the tiger, cobra, tortoise, peacock, jackal, lizard, elephant, lark, scorpion, calf, and so on; while more curious names are—Darpan, a mirror; Khanda Phari, sword and shield; Undrimaria, a rat-killer; Aglavi, an incendiary; Andhare, a blind man; Kutramaria, a dog-killer; Kodu Dudh, sour milk; Khobragade, cocoanut-kernel; Bhajikhai, a vegetable eater, and so on.

A man must not marry in his own sept, but may take a wife from his mother's or grandmother's. A sister's son may marry a brother's daughter, but not vice versa. A girl who is seduced before marriage by a man of her own caste or any higher one can be married as if she were a widow, but if she has a child she must first get some other family to take it off her hands. The custom of Lamjhana or serving for a wife is recognised, and the expectant bridegroom will live with his father-in-law and work for him for a period varying from one to five years. The marriage ceremony follows the customary Hindustani or Maratha ritual [118] as the case may be. In Wardha the right foot of the bridegroom and the left one of the bride are placed together in a new basket, while they stand one on each side of the threshold. They throw five handfuls of coloured rice over each other, and each time, as he throws, the bridegroom presses his toe on the bride's foot; at the end he catches the girl by the finger and the marriage is complete. In the Central Provinces the Mohturia or caste priest officiates at weddings, but in Berar, Mr. Kitts states [119] the caste employ the Brahman Joshi or village priest. But as he will not come to their house they hold the wedding on the day that one takes place among the higher castes, and when the priest gives the signal the dividing cloth (Antarpat) between the couple is withdrawn, and the garments of the bride and bridegroom are knotted, while the bystanders clap their hands and pelt the couple with coloured grain. As the priest frequently takes up his position on the roof of the house for a wedding it is easy for the Mahars to see him. In Mandla some of the lower class of Brahmans will officiate at the weddings of Mahars. In Chhindwara the Mahars seat the bride and bridegroom in the frame of a loom for the ceremony, and they worship the hide of a cow or bullock filled with water. They drink together ceremoniously, a pot of liquor being placed on a folded cloth and all the guests sitting round it in a circle. An elder man then lays a new piece of cloth on the pot and worships it. He takes a cup of the liquor himself and hands round a cupful to every person present.

In Mandla at a wedding the barber comes and cuts the bride's nails, and the cuttings are rolled up in dough and placed in a little earthen pot beside the marriage-post. The bridegroom's nails and hair are similarly cut in his own house and placed in another vessel. A month or two after the wedding the two little pots are taken out and thrown into the Nerbudda. A wedding costs the bridegroom's party about Rs. 40 or Rs. 50 and the bride's about Rs. 25. They have no going-away ceremony, but the occasion of a girl's coming to maturity is known as Bolawan. She is kept apart for six days and given new clothes, and the caste-people are invited to a meal. When a woman's husband dies the barber breaks her bangles, and her anklets are taken off and given to him as his perquisite. Her brother-in-law or other relative gives her a new white cloth, and she wears this at first, and afterwards white or coloured clothes at her pleasure. Her hair is not cut, and she may wear patelas or flat metal bangles on the forearm and armlets above the elbow, but not other ornaments. A widow is under no obligation to marry her first husband's younger brother; when she marries a stranger he usually pays a sum of about Rs. 30 to her parents. When the price has been paid the couple exchange a ring and a bangle respectively in token of the agreement. When the woman is proceeding to her second husband's house, her old clothes, necklace and bangles are thrown into a river or stream and she is given new ones to wear. This is done to lay the first husband's spirit, which may be supposed to hang about the clothes she wore as his wife, and when they are thrown away or buried the exorcist mutters spells over them in order to lay the spirit. No music is allowed at the marriage of a widow except the crooked trumpet called singara. A bachelor who marries a widow must first go through a mock ceremony with a cotton-plant, a sword or a ring. Divorce must be effected before the caste panchayat or committee, and if a divorced woman marries again, her first husband performs funeral and mourning ceremonies as if she were dead. In Gujarat the practice is much more lax and "divorce can be obtained almost to an indefinite extent. Before they finally settle down to wedded life most couples have more than once changed their partners." [120] But here also, before the change takes place, there must be a formal divorce recognised by the caste.

6. Funeral rites

The caste either burn or bury the dead and observe mourning for three days, [121] having their houses whitewashed and their faces shaved. On the tenth day they give a feast to the caste-fellows. On the Akshaya Tritia [122] and the 30th day of Kunwar (September) they offer rice and cakes to the crows in the names of their ancestors. In Berar Mr. Kitts writes: [123] "If a Mahar's child has died, he will on the third day place bread on the grave; if an infant, milk; if an adult, on the tenth day, with five pice in one hand and five betel-leaves in the other, he goes into the river, dips himself five times and throws these things away; he then places five lighted lamps on the tomb, and after these simple ceremonies gets himself shaved as though he were an orthodox Hindu."

7. Childbirth

In Mandla the mother is secluded at childbirth in a separate house if one is available, and if not they fence in a part of the veranda for her use with bamboo screens. After the birth the mother must remain impure until the barber comes and colours her toe-nails and draws a line round her feet with red mahur powder. This is indispensable, and if the barber is not immediately available she must wait until his services can be obtained. When the navel-string drops it is buried in the place on which the mother sat while giving birth, and when this has been done the purification may be effected. The Dhobi is then called to wash the clothes of the household, and their earthen pots are thrown away. The head of the newborn child is shaved clean, as the birth-hair is considered to be impure, and the hair is wrapped up in dough and thrown into a river.

8. Names

A child is named on the seventh or twelfth day after its birth, the name being chosen by the Mohturia or caste headman. The ordinary Hindu names of deities for men and sacred rivers or pious and faithful wives for women are employed; instances of the latter being Ganga, Godavari, Jamuna, Sita, Laxmi and Radha. Opprobrious names are sometimes given to avert ill-luck, as Damdya (purchased for eight cowries), Kauria (a cowrie), Bhikaria (a beggar), Ghusia (from ghus, a mallet for stamping earth), Harchatt (refuse), Akali (born in famine-time), Langra (lame), Lula (having an arm useless); or the name of another low caste is given, as Bhangi (sweeper), Domari (Dom sweeper), Chamra (tanner), Basori (basket-maker). Not infrequently children are named after the month or day when they were born, as Pusau, born in Pus (December), Chaitu, born in Chait (March), Manglu (born on Tuesday), Buddhi (born on Wednesday), Sukka (born on Friday), Sanichra (born on Saturday). One boy was called Mulua or 'Sold' (mol-dena). His mother had no other children, so sold him for one pice (farthing) to a Gond woman. After five or six months, as he did not get fat, his name was changed to Jhuma or 'lean,' probably as an additional means of averting ill-luck. Another boy was named Ghurka, from the noise he made when being suckled. A child born in the absence of its father is called Sonwa, or one born in an empty house.

9. Religion

The great body of the caste worship the ordinary deities Devi, Hanuman, Dulha Deo, and others, though of course they are not allowed to enter Hindu temples. They principally observe the Holi and Dasahra festivals and the days of the new and full moon. On the festival of Nag-Panchmi they make an image of a snake with flour and sugar and eat it. At the sacred Ambala tank at Ramtek the Mahars have a special bathing-ghat set apart for them, and they may enter the citadel and go as far as the lowest step leading up to the temples; here they worship the god and think that he accepts their offerings. They are thus permitted to traverse the outer enclosures of the citadel, which are also sacred. In Wardha the Mahars may not touch the shrines of Mahadeo, but must stand before them with their hands joined. They may sometimes deposit offerings with their own hands on those of Bhimsen, originally a Gond god, and Mata Devi, the goddess of smallpox.

10. Adoption of foreign religions

In Berar and Bombay the Mahars have some curious forms of belief. "Of the confusion which obtains in the Mahar theogony the names of six of their gods will afford a striking example. While some Mahars worship Vithoba, the god of Pandharpur, others revere Varuna's twin sons, Meghoni and Deghoni, and his four messengers, Gabriel, Azrael, Michael and Anadin, all of whom they say hail from Pandharpur." [124] The names of archangels thus mixed up with Hindu deities may most probably have been obtained from the Muhammadans, as they include Azrael; but in Gujarat their religion appears to have been borrowed from Christianity. "The Karia Dhedas have some rather remarkable beliefs. In the Satya Yug the Dhedas say they were called Satyas; in the Dvapar Yug they were called Meghas; in the Treta Yug, Elias; and in the Kali Yug, Dhedas. The name Elias came, they say, from a prophet Elia, and of him their religious men have vague stories; some of them especially about a famine that lasted for three years and a half, easily fitting into the accounts of Elijah in the Jewish Scriptures. They have also prophecies of a high future in store for their tribe. The king or leader of the new era, Kuyam Rai by name, will marry a Dheda woman and will raise the caste to the position of Brahmans. They hold religious meetings or ochhavas, and at these with great excitement sing songs full of hope of the good things in store for them. When a man wishes to hold an ochhava he invites the whole caste, and beginning about eight in the evening they often spend the night in singing. Except perhaps for a few sweetmeats there is no eating or drinking, and the excitement is altogether religious and musical. The singers are chiefly religious Dhedas or Bhagats, and the people join in a refrain 'Avore Kuyam Rai Raja', 'Oh! come Kuyam Rai, our king.'" [125] It seems that the attraction which outside faiths exercise on the Mahars is the hope held out of ameliorating the social degradation under which they labour, itself an outcome of the Hindu theory of caste. Hence they turn to Islam, or to what is possibly a degraded version of the Christian story, because these religions do not recognise caste, and hold out a promise to the Mahar of equality with his co-religionists, and in the case of Christianity of a recompense in the world to come for the sufferings which he has to endure in this one. Similarly, the Mahars are the warmest adherents of the Muhammadan saint Sheikh Farid, and flock to the fairs held in his honour at Girar in Wardha and Partapgarh in Bhandara, where he is supposed to have slain a couple of giants. [126] In Berar [127] also they revere Muhammadan tombs. The remains of the Muhammadan fort and tank on Pimpardol hill in Jalgaon taluk are now one of the sacred places of the Mahars, though to the Muhammadans they have no religious associations. Even at present Mahars are inclined to adopt Islam, and a case was recently reported when a body of twenty of them set out to do so, but turned back on being told that they would not be admitted to the mosque. [128] A large proportion of the Mahars are also adherents of the Kabirpanthi sect, one of the main tenets of whose founder was the abolition of caste. And it is from the same point of view that Christianity appeals to them, enabling European missionaries to draw a large number of converts from this caste. But even the Hindu attitude towards the Mahars is not one of unmixed intolerance. Once in three or four years in the southern Districts, the Panwars, Mahars, Pankas and other castes celebrate the worship of Narayan Deo or Vishnu, the officiating priest being a Mahar. Members of all castes come to the Panwar's house at night for the ceremony, and a vessel of water is placed at the door in which they wash their feet and hands as they enter; and when inside they are all considered to be equal, and they sit in a line and eat the same food, and bind wreaths of flowers round their heads. After the cock crows the equality of status is ended, and no one who goes out of the house can enter again. At present also many educated Brahmans recognise fully the social evils resulting from the degraded position of the Mahars, and are doing their best to remove the caste prejudices against them.

11. Superstitions

They have various spells to cure a man possessed of an evil spirit, or stung by a snake or scorpion, or likely to be in danger from tigers or wild bears; and in the Morsi taluk of Berar it is stated that they so greatly fear the effect of an enemy writing their name on a piece of paper and tying it to a sweeper's broom that the threat to do this can be used with great effect by their creditors. [129] To drive out the evil eye they make a small human image of powdered turmeric and throw it into boiled water, mentioning as they do so the names of any persons whom they suspect of having cast the evil eye upon them. Then the pot of water is taken out at midnight of a Wednesday or a Sunday and placed upside down on some cross-roads with a shoe over it, and the sufferer should be cured. Their belief about the sun and moon is that an old woman had two sons who were invited by the gods to dinner. Before they left she said to them that as they were going out there would be no one to cook, so they must remember to bring back something for her. The elder brother forgot what his mother had said and took nothing away with him; but the younger remembered her and brought back something from the feast. So when they came back the old woman cursed the elder brother and said that as he had forgotten her he should be the sun and scorch and dry up all vegetation with his beams; but the younger brother should be the moon and make the world cool and pleasant at night. The story is so puerile that it is only worth reproduction as a specimen of the level of a Mahar's intelligence. The belief in evil spirits appears to be on the decline, as a result of education and accumulated experience. Mr. C. Brown states that in Malkapur of Berar the Mahars say that there are no wandering spirits in the hills by night of such a nature that people need fear them. There are only tiny pari or fairies, small creatures in human form, but with the power of changing their appearance, who do no harm to any one.

12. Social rules

When an outsider is to be received into the community all the hair on his face is shaved, being wetted with the urine of a boy belonging to the group to which he seeks admission. Mahars will eat all kinds of food including the flesh of crocodiles and rats, but some of them abstain from beef. There is nothing peculiar in their dress except that the men wear a black woollen thread round their necks. [130] The women may be recognised by their bold carriage, the absence of nose-rings and the large irregular dabs of vermilion on the forehead. Mahar women do not, as a rule, wear the choli or breast-cloth. An unmarried girl does not put on vermilion nor draw her cloth over her head. Women must be tattooed with dots on the face, representations of scorpions, flowers and snakes on the arms and legs, and some dots to represent flies on the hands. It is the custom for a girl's father or mother or father-in-law to have her tattooed in one place on the hand or arm immediately on her marriage. Then when girls are sitting together they will show this mark and say, 'My mother or father-in-law had this done,' as the case may be. Afterwards if a woman so desires she gets herself tattooed on her other limbs. If an unmarried girl or widow becomes with child by a man of the Mahar caste or any higher one she is subjected after delivery to a semblance of the purification by fire known as Agnikasht. She is taken to the bank of a river and there five stalks of juari are placed round her and burnt. Having fasted all day, at night she gives a feast to the caste-men and eats with them. If she offends with a man of lower caste she is finally expelled. Temporary exclusion from caste is imposed for taking food or drink from the hands of a Mang or Chamar or for being imprisoned in jail, or on a Mahar man if he lives with a woman of any higher caste; the penalty being the shaving of a man's face or cutting off a lock of a woman's hair, together with a feast to the caste. In the last case it is said that the man is not readmitted until he has put the woman away. If a man touches a dead dog, cat, pony or donkey, he has to be shaved and give a feast to the caste. And if a dog or cat dies in his house, or a litter of puppies or kittens is born, the house is considered to be defiled; all the earthen pots must be thrown away, the whole house washed and cleaned and a caste feast given. The most solemn oath of a Mahar is by a cat or dog and in Yeotmal by a black dog. [131] In Berar, the same paper states, the pig is the only animal regarded as unclean, and they must on no account touch it. This is probably owing to Muhammadan influence. The worst social sin which a Mahar can commit is to get vermin in a wound, which is known as Deogan or being smitten by God. While the affliction continues he is quite ostracised, no one going to his house or giving him food or water; and when it is cured the Mahars of ten or twelve surrounding villages assemble and he must give a feast to the whole community. The reason for this calamity being looked upon with such peculiar abhorrence is obscure, but the feeling about it is general among Hindus.

13. Social subjection

The social position of the Mahars is one of distressing degradation. Their touch is considered to defile and they live in a quarter by themselves outside the village. They usually have a separate well assigned to them from which to draw water, and if the village has only one well the Mahars and Hindus take water from different sides of it. Mahar boys were not until recently allowed to attend school with Hindu boys, and when they could not be refused admission to Government schools, they were allotted a small corner of the veranda and separately taught. When Dher boys were first received into the Chanda High School a mutiny took place and the school was boycotted for some time. The people say, 'Mahar sarva jaticha bahar' or 'The Mahar is outside all castes.' Having a bad name, they are also given unwarrantably a bad character; and 'Mahar jaticha' is a phrase used for a man with no moral or kindly feelings. But in theory at least, as conforming to Hinduism, they were supposed to be better than Muhammadans and other unbelievers, as shown by the following story from the Rasmala: [132] A Muhammadan sovereign asked his Hindu minister which was the lowest caste. The minister begged for leisure to consider his reply and, having obtained it, went to where the Dhedas lived and said to them: "You have given offence to the Padishah. It is his intention to deprive you of caste and make you Muhammadans." The Dhedas, in the greatest terror, pushed off in a body to the sovereign's palace, and standing at a respectful distance shouted at the top of their lungs: "If we've offended your majesty, punish us in some other way than that. Beat us, fine us, hang us if you like, but don't make us Muhammadans." The Padishah smiled, and turning to his minister who sat by him affecting to hear nothing, said, 'So the lowest caste is that to which I belong.' But of course this cannot be said to represent the general view of the position of Muhammadans in Hindu eyes; they, like the English, are regarded as distinguished foreigners, who, if they consented to be proselytised, would probably in time become Brahmans or at least Rajputs. A repartee of a Mahar to a Brahman abusing him is: The Brahman, 'Jare Maharya' or 'Avaunt, ye Mahar'; the Mahar, 'Kona diushi nein tumchi goburya' or 'Some day I shall carry cowdung cakes for you (at his funeral)'; as in the Maratha Districts the Mahar is commonly engaged for carrying fuel to the funeral pyre. Under native rule the Mahar was subjected to painful degradations. He might not spit on the ground lest a Hindu should be polluted by touching it with his foot, but had to hang an earthen pot round his neck to hold his spittle. [133] He was made to drag a thorny branch with him to brush out his footsteps, and when a Brahman came by had to lie at a distance on his face lest his shadow might fall on the Brahman. In Gujarat [134] they were not allowed to tuck up the loin-cloth but had to trail it along the ground. Even quite recently in Bombay a Mahar was not allowed to talk loudly in the street while a well-to-do Brahman or his wife was dining in one of the houses. In the reign of Sidhraj, the great Solanki Raja of Gujarat, the Dheras were for a time at any rate freed from such disabilities by the sacrifice of one of their number. [135] The great tank at Anhilvada Patan in Gujarat had been built by the Ods (navvies), but Sidhraj desired Jusma Odni, one of their wives, and sought to possess her. But the Ods fled with her and when he pursued her she plunged a dagger into her stomach, cursing Sidhraj and saying that his tank should never hold water. The Raja, returning to Anhilvada, found the tank dry, and asked his minister what should be done that water might remain in the tank. The Pardhan, after consulting the astrologers, said that if a man's life were sacrificed the curse might be removed. At that time the Dhers or outcastes were compelled to live at a distance from the towns; they wore untwisted cotton round their heads and a stag's horn as a mark hanging from their waists so that people might be able to avoid touching them. The Raja commanded that a Dher named Mayo should be beheaded in the tank that water might remain. Mayo died, singing the praises of Vishnu, and the water after that began to remain in the tank. At the time of his death Mayo had begged as a reward for his sacrifice that the Dhers should not in future be compelled to live at a distance from the towns nor wear a distinctive dress. The Raja assented and these privileges were afterwards permitted to the Dhers for the sake of Mayo.

14. Their position improving

From the painful state of degradation described above the Mahars are gradually being rescued by the levelling and liberalising tendency of British rule, which must be to these depressed classes an untold blessing. With the right of acquiring property they have begun to assert themselves, and the extension of railways more especially has a great effect in abolishing caste distinctions. The Brahman who cannot afford a second-class fare must either not travel or take the risk of rubbing shoulders with a Mahar in a third-class carriage, and if he chooses to consider himself defiled will have to go hungry and thirsty until he gets the opportunity of bathing at his journey's end. The observance of the rules of impurity thus becomes so irksome that they are gradually falling into abeyance.

15. Occupation

The principal occupations of the Mahars are the weaving of coarse country cloth and general labour. They formerly spun their own yarn, and their fabrics were preferred by the cultivators for their durability. But practically all thread is now bought from the mills; and the weaving industry is also in a depressed condition. Many Mahars have now taken to working in the mills, and earn better wages than they could at home. In Bombay a number of them are employed as police-constables. [136] They are usually the village watchmen of the Maratha Districts, and in this capacity were remunerated by contributions of grain from the tenants, the hides and flesh of animals dying in the village, and plots of rent-free land. For these have now been substituted in the Central Provinces a cash payment fixed by Government. In Berar the corresponding official is known as the Kamdar Mahar. Mr. Kitts writes of him: [137] As fourth balutedar on the village establishment the Mahar holds a post of great importance to himself and convenience to the village. To the patel (headman), patwari and big men of the village, he acts often as a personal servant and errand-runner; for a smaller cultivator he will also at times carry a torch or act as escort. He had formerly to clean the horses of travellers, and was also obliged, if required, to carry their baggage. [138] For the services which he thus renders as pandhewar the Mahar receives from the cultivators certain grain-dues. When the cut juari is lying in the field the Mahars go round and beg for a measure of the ears (bhik payali). But the regular payment is made when the grain has been threshed. Another duty performed by the Mahar is the removal of the carcases of dead animals. The flesh is eaten and the skin retained as wage for the work. The patel and his relatives, however, usually claim to have the skins of their own animals returned; and in some places where half the agriculturists of the village claim kinship with the patel, the Mahars feel and resent the loss. A third duty is the opening of grain-pits, the noxious gas from which sometimes produces asphyxia. For this the Mahars receive the tainted grain. They also get the clothes from a corpse which is laid on the pyre, and the pieces of the burnt wood which remain when the body has been consumed. Recent observations in the Nagpur country show that the position of the Mahars is improving. In Nagpur it is stated: [139] "Looked down upon as outcastes by the Hindus they are hampered by no sense of dignity or family prejudice. They are fond of drink, but are also hard workers. They turn their hands to anything and everything, but the great majority are agricultural labourers. At present the rural Mahar is in the background. If there is only one well in the village he may not use it, but has to get his water where he can. His sons are consigned to a corner in the village school, and the schoolmaster, if not superior to caste prejudices, discourages their attendance. Nevertheless, Mahars will not remain for years downtrodden in this fashion, and are already pushing themselves up from this state of degradation. In some places they have combined to dig wells, and in Nagpur have opened a school for members of their own community. Occasionally a Mahar is the most prosperous man in the village. Several of them are moneylenders in a small way, and a few are malguzars." Similarly in Bhandara Mr. Napier writes that a new class of small creditors has arisen from the Mahar caste. These people have given up drinking, and lead an abstemious life, wishing to raise themselves in social estimation. Twenty or more village kotwars were found to be carrying on moneylending transactions on a small scale, and in addition many of the Mahars in towns were exceedingly well off.


1. Origin of the caste

Mahli, Mahili. [140]—A small caste of labourers, palanquin-bearers and workers in bamboo belonging to Chota Nagpur. In 1911 about 300 Mahlis were returned from the Feudatory States in this tract. They are divided into five subcastes: the Bansphor-Mahli, who make baskets and do all kinds of bamboo-work; the Pahar-Mahli, basket-makers and cultivators; the Sulunkhi, cultivators and labourers; the Tanti who carry litters; and the Mahli-Munda, who belong to Lohardaga. Sir H. Risley states that a comparison of the totemistic sections of the Mahlis given in the Appendix to his Tribes and Castes with those of the Santals seems to warrant the conjecture that the main body of the caste are merely a branch of the Santals. Four or five septs, Hansda a wild goose, Hemron, Murmu the nilgai, Saren or Sarihin, and perhaps Tudu or Turu are common to the two tribes. The Mahlis are also closely connected with the Mundas. Seven septs of the main body of the Mahlis, Dumriar the wild fig, Gundli a kind of grain, Kerketa a bird, Mahukal a bird (long-tail), Tirki, Tunduar and Turu are also Munda septs; and the three septs given of the Mahli-Munda subcaste, Bhuktuar, Lang Chenre, and Sanga are all found among the Mundas; while four septs, Hansda a wild goose, Induar a kind of eel, as well as Kerketa and Tirki, already mentioned, are common to the Mahlis and Turis who are also recognised by Sir H. Risley as an offshoot of the Munda tribe with the same occupation as the Mahlis, of making baskets. [141] The Santals and Mundas were no doubt originally one tribe, and it seems that the Mahlis are derived from both of them, and have become a separate caste owing to their having settled in villages more or less of the open country, and worked as labourers, palanquin-bearers and bamboo-workers much in the same manner as the Turis. Probably they work for hire for Hindus, and hence their status may have fallen lower than that of the parent tribe, who remained in their own villages in the jungles. Colonel Dalton notes [142] that the gipsy Berias use Manjhi and Mahali as titles, and it is possible that some of the Mahlis may have joined the Beria community.

2. Social customs

Only a very few points from Sir H. Risley's account of the caste need be recorded here, and for further details the reader may be referred to his article in the Tribes and Castes of Bengal. A bride-price of Rs. 5 is customary, but it varies according to the means of the parties. On the wedding day, before the usual procession starts to escort the bridegroom to the bride's house, he is formally married to a mango tree, while the bride goes through the same ceremony with a mahua. At the entrance to the bride's house the bridegroom, riding on the shoulders of some male relation and bearing on his head a vessel of water, is received by the bride's brother, equipped in similar fashion, and the two cavaliers sprinkle one another with water. At the wedding the bridegroom touches the bride's forehead five times with vermilion and presents her with an iron armlet. The remarriage of widows and divorce are permitted. When a man divorces his wife he gives her a rupee and takes away the iron armlet which was given her at her wedding. The Mahlis will admit members of any higher caste into the community. The candidate for admission must pay a small sum to the caste headman, and give a feast to the Mahlis of the neighbourhood, at which he must eat a little of the leavings of food left by each guest on his leaf-plate. After this humiliating rite he could not, of course, be taken back into his own caste, and is bound to remain a Mahli.


List of Paragraphs

1. Origin of the tribe. 2. The Mirzapur Majhwars derived from the Gonds. 3. Connection with the Kawars. 4. Exogamy and totemism. 5. Marriage customs. 6. Birth and funeral rites. 7. Religious dance.

1. Origin of the tribe

Majhwar, Manjhi, Majhia. [143]—A small mixed tribe who have apparently originated from the Gonds, Mundas and Kawars. About 14,000 Majhwars were returned in 1911 from the Raigarh, Sarguja and Udaipur States. The word Manjhi means the headman of a tribal subdivision, being derived from the Sanskrit madhya, or he who is in the centre. [144] In Bengal Manjhi has the meaning of the steersman of a boat or a ferryman, and this may have been its original application, as the steersman might well be he who sat in the centre. [145] When a tribal party makes an expedition by boat, the leader would naturally occupy the position of steersman, and hence it is easy to see how the term Manjhi came to be applied to the leader or head of the clan and to be retained as a title for general use. Sir H. Risley gives it as a title of the Kewats or fishermen and many other castes and tribes in Bengal. But it is also the name for a village headman among the Santals, and whether this meaning is derived from the prior signification of steersman or is of independent origin is, uncertain. In Raigarh Mr. Hira Lal states that the Manjhis or Majhias are fishermen and are sometimes classed, with the Kewats. They appear to be Kols who have taken to fishing and, being looked down on by the other Kols on this account, took the name of Majhia or Manjhi, which they now derive from Machh, a fish. "The appearance of the Majhias whom I saw and examined was typically aboriginal and their language was a curious mixture of Mundari, Santal and Korwa, though they stoutly repudiated connection with any of these tribes. They could count only up to three in their own language, using the Santal words mit, baria, pia. Most of their terms for parts of the body were derived from Mundari, but they also used some Santali and Korwa words. In their own language they called themselves Hor, which means a man, and is the tribal name of the Mundas."

2. The Mirzapur Majhwars derived from the Gonds

On the other hand the Majhwars of Mirzapur, of whom Mr. Crooke gives a detailed and interesting account, clearly appear to be derived from the Gonds. They have five subdivisions, which they say are descended from the five sons of their first Gond ancestor. These are Poiya, Tekam, Marai, Chika and Oiku. Four of these names are those of Gond clans, and each of the five subtribes is further divided into a number of exogamous septs, of which a large proportion bear typical Gond names, as Markam, Netam, Tekam, Masham, Sindram and so on. The Majhwars of Mirzapur also, like the Gonds, employ Patharis or Pardhans as their priests, and there can thus be no doubt that they are mainly derived from the Gonds. They would appear to have come to Mirzapur from Sarguja and the Vindhyan and Satpura hills, as they say that their ancestors ruled from the forts of Mandla, Garha in Jubbulpore, Sarangarh, Raigarh and other places in the Central Provinces. [146] They worship a deified Ahir, whose legs were cut off in a fight with some Raja, since when he has become a troublesome ghost. "He now lives on the Ahlor hill in Sarguja, where his petrified body may still be seen, and the Manjhis go there to worship him. His wife lives on the Jhoba hill in Sarguja. Nobody but a Baiga dares to ascend the hill, and even the Raja of Sarguja when he visits the neighbourhood sacrifices a black goat. Manjhis believe that if these two deities are duly propitiated they can give anything they need." The story makes it probable that the ancestors of these Manjhis dwelt in Sarguja. The Manjhis of Mirzapur are not boatmen or fishermen and have no traditions of having ever been so. They are a backward tribe and practise shifting cultivation on burnt-out patches of forest. It is possible that they may have abandoned their former aquatic profession on leaving the neighbourhood of the rivers, or they may have simply adopted the name, especially since it has the meaning of a village headman and is used as a title by the Santals and other castes and tribes. Similarly the term Munda, which at first meant the headman of a Kol village, is now the common name for the Kol tribe in Chota Nagpur.

3. Connection with the Kawars

Again the Manjhis appear to be connected with the Kawar tribe. Mr. Hira Lal states that in Raigarh they will take food with Kewats, Gonds, Kawars and Rawats or Ahirs, but they will not eat rice and pulse, the most important and sacred food, with any outsiders except Kawars; and this they explain by the statement that their ancestors and those of the Kawars were connected. In Mirzapur the Kaurai Ahirs will take food and water from the Majhwars, and these Ahirs are not improbably derived from the Kawars. [147] Here the Majhwars also hold an oath taken when touching a broadsword as most binding, and the Kawars of the Central Provinces worship a sword as one of their principal deities. [148] Not improbably the Manjhis may include some Kewats, as this caste also use Manjhi for a title; and Manjhi is both a subcaste and title of the Khairwars. The general conclusion from the above evidence appears to be that the caste is a very heterogeneous group whose most important constituents come from the Gond, Munda, Santal and Kawar tribes. Whether the original bond of connection among the various people who call themselves Manjhi was the common occupation of boating and fishing is a doubtful point.

4. Exogamy and totemism

The Manjhis of Sarguja, like those of Raigarh, appear to be of Munda and Santal rather than of Gond origin. They have no subdivisions, but a number of totemistic septs. Those of the Bhainsa or buffalo sept are split into the Lotan and Singhan subsepts, lotan meaning a place where buffaloes wallow and singh a horn. The Lotan Bhainsa sept say that their ancestor was born in a place where a buffalo had wallowed, and the Singhan Bhainsa that their ancestor was born while his mother was holding the horn of a buffalo. These septs consider the buffalo sacred and will not yoke it to a plough or cart, though they will drink its milk. They think that if one of them killed a buffalo their clan would become extinct. The Baghani Majhwars, named after the bagh or tiger, think that a tiger will not attack any member of their sept unless he has committed an offence entailing temporary excommunication from caste. Until this offence has been expiated his relationship with the tiger as head of his sept is in abeyance and the tiger will eat him as he would any other stranger. If a tiger meets a member of the sept who is free from sin, he will run away. When the Baghani sept hear that any Majhwar has killed a tiger they purify their houses by washing them with cowdung and water. Members of the Khoba or peg sept will not make a peg or drive one into the ground. Those of the Dumar [149] or fig-tree sept say that their first ancestor was born under this tree. They consider the tree to be sacred and never eat its fruit, and worship it once a year. Members of the sept named after the shiroti tree worship the tree every Sunday.

5. Marriage customs.

Marriage within the sept is prohibited and for three generations between persons related through females. Marriage is adult, but matches are arranged by the parents of the parties. At betrothal the elders of the caste must be regaled with cheora or parched rice and liquor. A bride-price of Rs. 10 is paid, but a suitor who cannot afford this may do service to his father-in-law for one or two years in lieu of it. At the wedding the bridegroom puts a copper ring on the bride's finger and marks her forehead with vermilion. The couple walk seven times round the sacred post, and seven little heaps of rice and pieces of turmeric are arranged so that they may touch one of them with their big toes at each round. The bride's mother and seven other women place some rice in the skirts of their cloths and the bridegroom throws this over his shoulder. After this he picks up the rice and distributes it to all the women present, and the bride goes through the same ceremony. The rice is no doubt an emblem of fertility, and its presentation to the women may perhaps be expected to render them fertile.

6. Birth and funeral rites

On the birth of a child the navel-string is buried in front of the house. When a man is at the point of death they place a little cooked rice and curds in his mouth so that he may not go hungry to the other world, in view of the fact that he has probably eaten very little during his illness. Some cotton and rice are also placed near the head of the corpse in the grave so that he may have food and clothing in the next world. Mourning is observed for five days, and at the end of this period the mourners should have their hair cut, but if they cannot get it done on this day, the rite may be performed on the same day in the following year.

7. Religious dance

The tribe worship Dulha Deo, the bridegroom god, and also make offerings to their ploughs at the time of eating the new rice and at the Holi and Dasahra festivals. They dance the karma dance in the months of Asarh and Kunwar or at the beginning and end of the rains. When the time has come the Gaontia headman or the Baiga priest fetches a branch of the karma tree from the forest and sets it up in his yard as a notice and invitation to the village. After sunset all the people, men, women and children, assemble and dance round the tree, to the accompaniment of a drum known as Mandar. The dancing continues all night, and in the morning the host plucks up the branch of the karma tree and consigns it to a stream, at the same time regaling the dancers with rice, pulse and a goat. This dance is a religious rite in honour of Karam Raja, and is believed to keep sickness from the village and bring it prosperity. The tribe eat flesh, but abstain from beef and pork. Girls are tattooed on arrival at puberty with representations of the tulsi or basil, four arrow-heads in the form of a cross, and the foot-ornament known as pairi.


Mal, Male, Maler, Mal Paharia. [150]—A tribe of the Rajmahal hills, who may be an isolated branch of the Savars. In 1911 about 1700 Mals were returned from the Chota Nagpur Feudatory States recently transferred to the Central Provinces. The customs of the Mals resemble those of the other hill tribes of Chota Nagpur. Sir H. Risley states that the average stature is low, the complexion dark and the figure short and sturdy. The following particulars are reproduced from Colonel Dalton's account of the tribe:

"The hill lads and lasses are represented as forming very romantic attachments, exhibiting the spectacle of real lovers 'sighing like furnaces,' and the cockney expression of 'keeping company' is peculiarly applicable to their courtship. If separated only for an hour they are miserable, but there are apparently few obstacles to the enjoyment of each other's society, as they work together, go to market together, eat together, and sleep together! But if it be found that they have overstepped the prescribed limits of billing and cooing, the elders declare them to be out of the pale, and the blood of animals must be shed at their expense to wash away the indiscretion and obtain their readmission into society.

"On the day fixed for a marriage the bridegroom with his relations proceeds to the bride's father's house, where they are seated on cots and mats, and after a repast the bride's father takes his daughter's hand and places it in that of the bridegroom, and exhorts him to be loving and kind to the girl that he thus makes over to him. The groom then with the little finger of his right hand marks the girl on the forehead with vermilion, and then, linking the same finger with the little finger of her right hand, he leads her away to his own house.

"The god of hunting is called Autga, and at the close of every successful expedition a thank-offering is made to him. This is the favourite pastime, and one of the chief occupations of the Malers, and they have their game laws, which are strictly enforced. If a man, losing an animal which he has killed or wounded, seeks for assistance to find it, those who aid are entitled to one-half of the animal when found. Another person accidentally coming on dead or wounded game and appropriating it, is subjected to a severe fine. The Manjhi or headman of the village is entitled to a share of all game killed by any of his people. Any one who kills a hunting dog is fined twelve rupees. Certain parts of an animal are tabooed to females as food, and if they infringe this law Autga is offended and game becomes scarce. When the hunters are unsuccessful it is often assumed that this is the cause, and the augur never fails to point out the transgressing female, who must provide a propitiatory offering. The Malers use poisoned arrows, and when they kill game the flesh round the wound is cut off and thrown away as unfit for food. Cats are under the protection of the game laws, and a person found guilty of killing one is made to give a small quantity of salt to every child in the village.

"I nowhere find any description of the dances and songs of the Paharias. Mr. Atkinson found the Malers extremely reticent on the subject, and with difficulty elicited that they had a dancing-place in every village, but it is only when under the influence of God Bacchus that they indulge in the amusement. All accounts agree in ascribing to the Paharias an immoderate devotion to strong drink, and Buchanan tells us that when they are dancing a person goes round with a pitcher of the home-brew and, without disarranging the performers, who are probably linked together by circling or entwining arms, pours into the mouth of each, male and female, a refreshing and invigorating draught. The beverage is the universal pachwai, that is, fermented grain. The grain, either maize, rice or janera (Holcus sorghum), is boiled and spread out on a mat to cool. It is then mixed with a ferment of vegetables called takar, and kept in a large earthen vessel for some days; warm water may at any time be mixed with it, and in a few hours it ferments and is ready for use."

When the attention of English officers was first drawn to them in 1770 the Males of the Rajmahal hills were a tribe of predatory freebooters, raiding and terrorising the plain country from the foot of the hills to the Ganges. It was Mr. Augustus Cleveland, Collector of Bhagalpur, who reduced them to order by entering into engagements with the chiefs for the prevention and punishment of offences among their own tribesmen, confirming them in their estates and jurisdiction, and enrolling a corps of Males, which became the Bhagalpur Hill Rangers, and was not disbanded till the Mutiny. Mr. Cleveland died at the age of 29, having successfully demonstrated the correct method of dealing with the wild forest tribes, and the Governor-General in Council erected a tomb and inscription to his memory, which was the original of that described by Mr. Kipling in The Tomb of his Ancestors, though the character of the first John Chinn in the story was copied from Outram. [151]


Mala.—A low Telugu caste of labourers and cotton-weavers. They numbered nearly 14,000 persons in the Central Provinces in 1911, belonging mainly to the Chanda, Nagpur, Jubbulpore, and Yeotmal Districts, and the Bastar State. The Marathas commonly call them Telugu Dhers, but they themselves prefer to be known as 'Telangi Sadar Bhoi,' which sounds a more respectable designation. They are also known as Mannepuwar and Netkani. They are the Pariahs of the Telugu country, and are regarded as impure and degraded. They may be distinguished by their manner of tying the head-cloth more or less in a square shape, and by their loin-cloths, which are worn very loose and not knotted. Those who worship Narsinghswami, the man-lion incarnation of Vishnu, are called Namaddar, while the followers of Mahadeo are known as Lingadars. The former paint their foreheads with vertical lines of sandal-paste, and the latter with horizontal ones. The Malas were formerly zealous partisans of the right-handed sect in Madras, and the description of this curious system of faction given by the Abbe Dubois more than a century ago may be reproduced: [152]

"Most castes belong either to the left-hand or right-hand faction. The former comprises the Vaishyas or trading classes, the Panchalas or artisan classes and some of the low Sudra castes. It also contains the lowest caste, viz. the Chaklas or leather-workers, who are looked upon as its chief support. To the right-hand faction belong most of the higher castes of Sudras. The Pariahs (Malas) are also its great support, as a proof of which they glory in the title of Valangai Maugattar or Friends of the Right Hand. In the disputes and conflicts which so often take place between the two factions it is always the Pariahs who make the most disturbance and do the most damage. The Brahmans, Rajas and several classes of Sudras are content to remain neutral and take no part in these quarrels. The opposition between the two factions arises from certain exclusive privileges to which both lay claim. But as these alleged privileges are nowhere clearly defined and recognised, they result in confusion and uncertainty, and are with difficulty capable of settlement. When one faction trespasses on the so-called right of the other, tumults arise which spread gradually over large tracts of territory, afford opportunity for excesses of all kinds, and generally end in bloody conflicts. The Hindu, ordinarily so timid and gentle in all other circumstances of life, seems to change his nature completely on occasions like these. There is no danger that he will not brave in maintaining what he calls his rights, and rather than sacrifice a little of them he will expose himself without fear to the risk of losing his life. The rights and privileges for which the Hindus are ready to fight such sanguinary battles appear highly ridiculous, especially to a European. Perhaps the sole cause of the contest is the right to wear slippers or to ride through the streets in a palanquin or on horseback during marriage festivals. Sometimes it is the privilege of being escorted on certain occasions by armed retainers, sometimes that of having a trumpet sounded in front of a procession, or of being accompanied by native musicians at public ceremonies." The writer of the Madras Census Report of 1871 states: [153] "It is curious that the females of two of the inferior castes should take different sides to their husbands in these disputes. The wives of the agricultural labourers side with the left hand, while their husbands help in fighting the battles of the right, and the shoemakers' wives also take the side opposed to their husbands. During these festival disturbances, the ladies who hold political views opposed to those of their husbands deny to the latter all the privileges of the connubial state." The same writer states that the right-hand castes claimed the prerogative of riding on horseback in processions, of appearing with standards bearing certain devices, and of erecting twelve pillars to sustain their marriage booths; while the left-hand castes might not have more than eleven pillars, nor use the same standards as the right. The quarrels arising out of these small differences of opinion were so frequent and serious in the seventeenth century that in the town of Madras it was found necessary to mark the respective boundaries of the right- and left-hand castes, and to forbid the right-hand castes in their processions from occupying the streets of the left hand and vice versa. These disturbances have gradually tended to disappear under the influence of education and good government, and no instance of them is known to have occurred in the Central Provinces. The division appears to have originated among the members of the Sakta sect or the worshippers of Sakti as the female principle of life in nature. Dr. L. D. Barnett writes: [154]—"The followers of the sect are of two schools. The 'Walkers in the Right Way' (Dakshinachari) pay a service of devotion to the deity in both male and female aspects, and except in their more pronounced tendency to dwell upon the horrific aspects of the deity (as Kali, Durga, etc.), they differ little from ordinary Saivas and Vaishnavas. The 'Walkers in the Left Way' (Vamachari), on the other hand, concentrate their thought upon the godhead in its sexually maternal aspect, and follow rites of senseless magic and—theoretically at least—promiscuous debauchery." As has been seen, the religious differences subsequently gave rise to political factions.


List of Paragraphs

1. General notice of the caste, and its social position. 2. Caste legend. 3. Flowers offered to the gods. 4. Custom of wearing garlands. 5. Subcastes. 6. Marriage. 7. Widow-marriage, divorce and polygamy. 8. Disposal of the dead. 9. Religion. 10. Occupation. 11. Traits and characters. 12. Other functions of the Mali. 13. Physical appearance.

1. General notice of the caste, and its social position

Mali, Marar, Maral. [155]—The functional caste of vegetable and flower-gardeners. The terms Mali and Marar appear to be used indifferently for the same caste, the former being more common in the west of the Province and the latter in the eastern Satpura Districts and the Chhattisgarh plain. In the Nerbudda valley and on the Vindhyan plateau the place of both Mali and Marar is taken by the Kachhi of Upper India. [156] Marar appears to be a Marathi name, the original term, as pointed out by Mr. Hira Lal, being Malal, or one who grows garden-crops in a field; but the caste is often called Mali in the Maratha country and Marar in the Hindi Districts. The word Mali is derived from the Sanskrit mala, a garland. In 1911 the Malis numbered nearly 360,000 persons in the present area of the Central Provinces, and 200,000 in Berar. A German writer remarks of the caste [157] that: "It cannot be considered to be a very ancient one. Generally speaking, it may be said that flowers have scarcely a place in the Veda. Wreaths of flowers, of course, are used as decorations, but the separate flowers and their beauty are not yet appreciated. That lesson was first learned later by the Hindus when surrounded by another flora. Amongst the Homeric Greeks, too, in spite of their extensive gardening and different flowers, not a trace of horticulture is yet to be found." It seems probable that the first Malis were not included among the regular cultivators of the village but were a lower group permitted to take up the small waste plots of land adjoining the inhabited area and fertilised by its drainage, and the sandy stretches in the beds of rivers, on which they were able to raise the flowers required for offerings and such vegetables as were known. They still hold a lower rank than the ordinary cultivator. Sir D. Ibbetson writes [158] of the gardening castes: "The group now to be discussed very generally hold an inferior position among the agricultural community and seldom if ever occupy the position of the dominant tribe in any considerable tract of country. The cultivation of vegetables is looked upon as degrading by the agricultural classes, why I know not, unless it be that night-soil is generally used for their fertilisation; and a Rajput would say: 'What! Do you take me for an Arain?' if anything was proposed which he considered derogatory." But since most Malis in the Central Provinces strenuously object to using night-soil as a manure the explanation that this practice has caused them to rank below the agricultural castes does not seem sufficient. And if the use of night-soil were the real circumstance which determined their social position, it seems certain that Brahmans would not take water from their hands as they do. Elsewhere Sir D. Ibbetson remarks: [159] "The Malis and Sainis, like all vegetable growers, occupy a very inferior position among the agricultural castes; but of the two the Sainis are probably the higher, as they more often own land or even whole villages, and are less generally mere market-gardeners than are the Malis." Here is given what may perhaps be the true reason for the status of the Mali caste as a whole. Again Sir C. Elliot wrote in the Hoshangabad Settlement Report: "Garden crops are considered as a kind of fancy agriculture and the true cultivator, the Kisan, looks on them with contempt as little peddling matters; what stirs his ambition is a fine large wheat-field eighty or a hundred acres in extent, as flat as a billiard-table and as black as a Gond." Similarly Mr. Low [160] states that in Balaghat the Panwars, the principal agricultural caste, look down on the Marars as growers of petty crops like sama and kutki. In Wardha the Dangris, a small caste of melon and vegetable growers, are an offshoot of the Kunbis; and they will take food from the Kunbis, though these will not accept it from them, their social status being thus distinctly lower than that of the parent caste. Again the Kohlis of Bhandara, who grow sugarcane with irrigation, are probably derived from an aboriginal tribe, the Kols, and, though they possess a number of villages, rank lower than the regular cultivating castes. It is also worth noting that they do not admit tenant-right in their villages among their own caste, and allot the sugarcane plots among the cultivators at pleasure. [161] In Nimar the Malis rank below the Kunbis and Gujars, the good agricultural castes, and it is said that they grow the crops which the cultivators proper do not care to grow. The Kachhis, the gardening caste of the northern Districts, have a very low status, markedly inferior to that of the Lodhis and Kurmis and little if any better than the menial Dhimars. Similarly, as will be seen later, the Marars themselves have customs pointing clearly to a non-Aryan origin. The Bhoyars of Betul, who grow sugarcane, are probably of mixed origin from Rajput fathers and mothers of the indigenous tribes; they eat fowls and are much addicted to liquor and rank below the cultivating castes. The explanation seems to be that the gardening castes are not considered as landholders, and have not therefore the position which attaches to the holding of land among all early agricultural peoples, and which in India consisted in the status of a constituent member of the village community. So far as ceremonial purity goes there is no difference between the Malis and the cultivating castes, as Brahmans will take water from both. It may be surmised that this privilege has been given to the Malis because they grow the flowers required for offerings to the gods, and sometimes officiate as village priests and temple servants; and their occupation, though not on a level with regular agriculture, is still respectable. But the fact that Brahmans will take water from them does not place the Malis on an equality with the cultivating castes, any more than it does the Nais (barbers) and Dhimars (watermen), the condemned menial servants of the cultivators, from whom Brahmans will also take water from motives of convenience.

2. Caste legend

The Malis have a Brahmanical legend of the usual type indicating that their hereditary calling was conferred and ratified by divine authority. [162] This is to the effect that the first Mali was a garland-maker attached to the household of Raja Kansa of Mathura. One day he met with Krishna, and, on being asked by him for a chaplet of flowers, at once gave it. On being told to fasten it with string, he, for want of any other, took off his sacred thread and tied it, on which Krishna most ungenerously rebuked him for his simplicity in parting with his paita, and announced that for the future his caste would be ranked among the Sudras.

The above story, combined with the derivation of Mali from mala, a garland, makes it a plausible hypothesis that the calling of the first Malis was to grow flowers for the adornment of the gods, and especially for making the garlands with which their images were and still are decorated. Thus the Malis were intimately connected with the gods and naturally became priests of the village temples, in which capacity they are often employed. Mr. Nesfield remarks of the Mali: [163] "To Hindus of all ranks, including even the Brahmans, he acts as a priest of Mahadeo in places where no Gosain is to be found, and lays the flower offerings on the lingam by which the deity is symbolised. As the Mali is believed to have some influence with the god to whose temple he is attached, none objects to his appropriating the fee which is nominally presented to the god himself. In the worship of those village godlings whom the Brahmans disdain to recognise and whom the Gosain is not permitted to honour the Mali is sometimes employed to present the offering. He is thus the recognised hereditary priest of the lower and more ignorant classes of the population." In the Central Provinces Malis are commonly employed in the temples of Devi because goats are offered to the goddess and hence the worship cannot be conducted by Brahmans. They also work as servants in Jain temples under the priest. They sweep the temple, clean the utensils, and do other menial business. This service, however, does not affect their religion and they continue to be Hindus.

His services in providing flowers for the gods would be remunerated by contributions of grain from the cultivators, the acceptance of which would place the Mali below them in the rank of a village menial, though higher than most of the class owing to the purity of his occupation. His status was probably much the same as that of the Guraos or village priests of Mahadeo in the Maratha country. And though he has now become a cultivator, his position has not improved to the level of other cultivating castes for the reasons already given. It was probably the necessity of regularly watering his plants in order to obtain a longer and more constant supply of blooms which first taught the Mali the uses of irrigation.

3. Flowers offered to the gods

Flowers are par excellence suited for the offerings and adornment of the gods, and many Hindus have rose or other plants in their houses whose flowers are destined to the household god. There is little reason to doubt that this was the purpose for which cultivated flowers were first grown. The marigold, lotus and champak are favourite religious flowers, while the tulsi or basil is itself worshipped as the consort of Vishnu; in this case, however, the scent is perhaps the more valued feature. In many Hindu households all flowers brought into the house are offered to the household god before being put to any other use. A Brahman school-boy to whom I had given some flowers to copy in drawing said that his mother had offered them to the god Krishna before he used them. When faded or done with they should be consigned to the sacred element, water, in any stream or river. The statues of the gods are adorned with sculptured garlands or hold them in their hands. A similar state of things prevailed in classical antiquity:

Who are these coming to the sacrifice? To what green altar, O mysterious priest, Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies, And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?


Fairer than these, though temple thou hast none, Nor altar decked with flowers, Nor virgin choir to make delicious moan Upon the midnight hours.

M. Fustel de Coulanges describes the custom of wearing crowns or garlands of flowers in ancient Rome and Greece as follows: "It is clear that the communal feasts were religious ceremonies. Each guest had a crown on the head; it was an ancient custom to crown oneself with leaves or flowers for any solemn religious act." "The more a man is adorned with flowers," they said, "the more pleasing he is to the gods; but they turn away from him who wears no crown at his sacrifice." And again, 'A crown is the auspicious herald which announces a prayer to the gods.' [164]

Among the Persians the flowers themselves are worshipped: [165] "When a pure Iranian sauntered through (the Victoria Gardens in Bombay) ... he would stand awhile and meditate over every flower in his path, and always as in a vision; and when at last the vision was fulfilled, and the ideal flower found, he would spread his mat or carpet before it, and sit before it to the going down of the sun, when he would arise and pray before it, and then refold his mat or carpet and go home; and the next night, and night after night, until that bright particular flower faded away, he would return to it, bringing his friends with him in ever-increasing numbers, and sit and sing and play the guitar or lute before it—and anon they all would arise together and pray before it; and after prayers, still sit on, sipping sherbet and talking the most hilarious and shocking scandal, late into the moonlight."

4. Custom of wearing garlands

From the custom of placing garlands on the gods as a mark of honour has no doubt arisen that of garlanding guests. This is not confined to India but obtained in Rome and probably in other countries. The word 'chaplet' [166] originally meant a garland or wreath to be worn on the head; and a garland of leaves with four flowers at equal distances. Dryden says, 'With chaplets green upon their foreheads placed.' The word mala originally meant a garland, and subsequently a rosary or string of beads. From this it seems a legitimate deduction that rosaries or strings of beads of a sacred wood were substituted for flower-garlands as ornaments for the gods in view of their more permanent nature. Having been thus sanctified they may have come to be worn as a mark of holiness by saints or priests in imitation of the divine images, this being a common or universal fashion of Hindu ascetics. Subsequently they were found to serve as a useful means of counting the continuous repetition of prayers, whence arose the phrase 'telling one's beads.' Like the Sanskrit mala, the English word rosary at first meant a garland of roses and subsequently a string of beads, probably made from rose-wood, on which prayers were counted. From this it may perhaps be concluded that the images of the deities were decorated with garlands of roses in Europe, and the development of the rosary was the same as the Indian mala. If the rose was a sacred flower we can more easily understand its importance as a badge in the Wars of the Roses.

5. Sub-castes

The caste has numerous endogamous groups, varying in different localities. The Phulmalis, who derive their name from their occupation of growing and selling flowers (phul), usually rank as the highest. The Ghase Malis are the only subcaste which will grow and prepare turmeric in Wardha; but they will not sell milk or curds, an occupation to which the Phulmalis, though the highest subcaste, have no objection. In Chanda the Kosaria Malis, who take their name from Kosala, the classical designation of the Chhattisgarh country, are the sole growers of turmeric, while in Berar the Halde subcaste, named after the plant, occupy the same position. The Kosaria or Kosre subcaste abstain from liquor, and their women wear glass bangles only on one hand and silver ones on the other. The objection entertained to the cultivation of turmeric by Hindus generally is said to be based on the fact that when the roots are boiled numbers of small insects are necessarily destroyed; but the other Malis relate that one of the ancestors of the caste had a calf called Hardulia, and one day he said to his daughter, Haldi paka, or 'Cook turmeric.' But the daughter thought that he said 'cook Hardulia,' so she killed and roasted the calf, and in consequence of this her father was expelled from the caste, and his descendants are the Ghase or Halde subcaste. Ever since this happened the shape of a calf may be seen in the flower of turmeric. This legend has, however, no real value and the meaning of the superstition attaching to the plant is obscure. Though the growing of turmeric is tabooed yet it is a sacred plant, and no Hindu girl, at least in the Central Provinces, can be married without having turmeric powder rubbed on her body. Mr. Gordon remarks in Indian Folk-Tales: "I was once speaking to a Hindu gardener of the possibility of turmeric and garlic being stolen from his garden. 'These two vegetables are never stolen,' he replied, 'for we Hindus believe that he who steals turmeric and garlic will appear with six fingers in the next birth, and this deformity is always considered the birth-mark of a thief.'" The Jire Malis are so named because they were formerly the only subcaste who would grow cumin (jira), but this distinction no longer exists as other Malis, except perhaps the Phulmalis, now grow it. Other subcastes have territorial names, as Baone from Berar, Jaipuria, Kanaujia, and so on. The caste have also exogamous septs or bargas, with designations taken from villages, titles or nicknames or inanimate objects.

6. Marriage

Marriage is forbidden between members of the same sept and between first and second cousins. Girls are generally betrothed in childhood and should be married before maturity. In the Uriya country if no suitable husband can be found for a girl she is sometimes made to go through the marriage ceremony with a peg of mahua wood driven into the ground and covered over with a cloth. She is then tied to a tree in the forest and any member of the caste may go and release her, when she becomes his wife. The Marars of Balaghat and Bhandara have the lamjhana form of marriage, in which the prospective husband serves for his wife; this is a Dravidian custom and shows their connection with the forest tribes. The marriage ceremony follows the standard form prevalent in the locality. In Betul the couple go seven times round a slab on which a stone roller is placed, with their clothes knotted together and holding in their hands a lighted lamp. The slab and roller may be the implements used in powdering turmeric. "Among the Marars of Balaghat [167] the maternal uncle of the bridegroom goes to the village of the bride and brings back with him the bridal party. The bride's party do not at once cross the boundary of the bridegroom's village, but will stay outside it for a few hours. Word is sent and the bridegroom's party will bring out cooked food, which they eat with the bride's party. This done, they go to the house of the bridegroom and the bride forthwith walks five times round a pounding-stone. Next day turmeric is applied to the couple, and the caste people are given a feast. The essential portion of the ceremony consists in the rubbing of vermilion on the foreheads of the couple under the cover of a cloth. The caste permit the practice of ralla-palla or exchanging sisters in marriage. They are said to have a custom at weddings known as kondia, according to which a young man of the bridegroom's party, called the Sand or bull, is shut up in a house at night with all the women of the bride's party; he is at liberty to seize and have intercourse with any of them he can catch, while they are allowed to beat him as much as they like. It is said that he seldom has much cause to congratulate himself." But the caste have now become ashamed of this custom and it is being abandoned. In Chhattisgarh the Marars, like other castes, have the forms of marriage known as the Badi Shadi and Chhoti Shadi or great and small weddings. The former is an elaborate form of marriage, taking place at the house of the bride. Those who cannot afford the expense of this have a 'Small Wedding' at the house of the bridegroom, at which the rites are curtailed and the expenditure considerably reduced.

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